The Philadelphia 76ers went all in at the table. It came down to the river. The reveal wasn't pretty.
Unfortunately, the full house that was the Andrew Bynum trade was beaten by a four of a kind: 1) Bynum may never play; 2) Jason Richardson got hurt; 3) Nik Vucevic has become a formidable center elsewhere; and 4) There’s a defensive void the size of a Bynum afro since Andre Iguodala’s departure.
So now that the chips are gone, it’s time to buy back in. Like, right now. At 23-37, it’s safe to finally call this a lost season. However, whether it’s simply a mulligan or the start of a disturbing trend of ineptitude will depend on several factors.
The first is Doug Collins. This is now the fourth team the former All-Star has coached. In each situation, he took a down-and-out club and transformed them to respectability after his first season. In each situation, he had worn out his welcome by year three.
It’s the Chocolate Effect: A beautiful—but short-lived—sugar high that fulfills…until that stomachache and guilty conscience arrive. For now, though, it would behoove Collins to ignore his sweet tooth and replace a quick fix with the big picture.
It’s time to see what he has, so as to not again overlook what he once had in Vucevic. Can Arnett Moultrie make a significant impact in the rotation? Were Charles Jenkins and Jeremy Pargo worth acquiring for the long haul? What better time to find out than when you’re eight games out of the playoffs with just 20 to go?
A squad going from one of the biggest overachievers to one of the biggest underachievers—even with the injuries— in less than a year is quite astounding. True, there was a major roster overhaul. And true, there may not have been the same buy-in to Collins’ intense, tough-love approach.
But something’s gotta give. Which means they go or he goes.
Fortunately, only a handful of players are under contract to return. Therefore, old messages may not fall upon deaf ears. But with Collins’ infamous reluctance to allow his fledglings to spread their wings, any future transformations will have to occur via free agency.
Which leads us to the next factor: What moves do the Sixers make this offseason? Or, perhaps more accurately, what moves can they make?
If Bynum decides that he’s determined to get on the court next fall, it poses an interesting predicament. Sadly, this is a league that rewards reputation and potential as opposed to reality. That means there will most likely be a team that will dump sickening amounts of unearned money his direction; essentially the same high-risk, high-reward hand Philly got burned on last summer.
But let’s say every GM comes to his senses, the stars align, good karma makes an appearance and the market runs dry, forcing Bynum’s own hand to settle for a one-year deal. Do it. When you have nothing much left to lose, it’s easier to take gambles.
This should still leave enough cap space for a top-tier free agent (think Al Jefferson) as well as a mid-level exception veteran who perhaps can infuse some leadership into a group of players who often resemble The Walking Dead.
Lastly, if a franchise makes a splash in the middle of an ocean of empty seats, will it make a sound?
It’s been 12 years since the Cinderella Sixers rode their carriage all the way to Game 5 of the NBA Finals before the clock finally struck midnight. Since then, every other major team in town has made it to at least one championship and has legitimately contended multiple times. The Sixers have not. As a result, there is a depressing amount of apathy in a city saturated in such basketball tradition.
It hasn’t been built, so the fans haven’t come.
The hyped-up dog-and-pony show that was the formal Bynum introduction at the Constitution Center was the right move. It gave the community a reason to celebrate something, to take notice. The end result is moot.
Former team president Pat Croce was a marketing master who took over an organization sinking into similar squalor back in the '90s and willed it to relevance, not just through personnel moves, but through crafty public relations and marketing campaigns, including town hall meetings with its scarce season-ticket holders. If this new ownership group truly wants to save the Sixers from permanent obscurity, it may want to take a page from Croce’s high-energy book.
However, even that—like a Collins coaching tenure— was short-lived. And Philadelphia has already had its share of chocolate.
Regardless of what may occur, the only key to respectability is to start winning some of these hands and stay seated at the contenders’ table for a while.
Otherwise, it may be just another year of hanging out at the penny slots while the other guys play poker.